Higher Education: It’s Not Just a Pipe Dream Anymore

March 2, 2020

Lake Superior State University (LSSU) and ExtractionTek Solutions (ETS) are teaming up to bring the world a true cannabis degree with a hands on laboratory. LSSU is regionally accredited and is currently enrolled in three Associate of Arts (A.A.) and Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) cannabis degrees. ETS and its partners will be providing real world experience, knowledge, and expertise from the cannabis industry. LSSU has also teamed up with Agilent to provide much needed analytical testing research from a facility that is not incentivized by money.

Lake Superior State University (LSSU) and ExtractionTek Solutions (ETS) are teaming up to bring the world a true cannabis degree with a hands on laboratory. LSSU is regionally accredited and is currently enrolled in three Associate of Arts (A.A.) and Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) cannabis degrees. ETS and its partners will be providing real world experience, knowledge, and expertise from the cannabis industry. LSSU has also teamed up with Agilent to provide much needed analytical testing research from a facility that is not incentivized by money.

A cannabis degree? What once seemed like a pipe dream is actually happening. The cannabis industry is enjoying a steadily growing demand and is in need of an increasingly expansive, educated labor force. As of the first quarter in 2019, reports show that the cannabis industry provided more than 200,000 jobs in the U.S., and over 60,000 of them were created in 2018 (1). With more states approving medical and recreational cannabis sales and the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, the growth potential for the industry is enormous.

As the fastest growing industry in the U.S. and a promising growth sector internationally, commercial cannabis is maturing faster than most can keep abreast. It seems as if there is far more misinformation than real information available; leaving a large gap between those who have knowledge and those that want it. The ability to distribute cannabis knowledge in an organized manner is problematic. The internet is a valuable resource, but it leaves much to be desired. So, where do we go from here?

Lake Superior State University (LSSU) is one of the first universities to step up and take the responsibility for formally carrying cannabis into higher education. They have broken the barrier that others were unwilling to. Cannabis has been stigmatized and laughed about for so long that society has been trained to think it’s a bad thing. Other schools have tip-toed around the wording, but have never called it what it is: cannabis. LSSU has officially put cannabis into the realms of higher learning. Comprised of a multitude of compounds, with a wide array of applications, cannabis’s complexity is a daunting puzzle to unravel. Cannabis is made up of hundreds of compounds, including cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and much more. As such, it deserves its own degree and to be studied at a higher level.

Founded in 1946 and located in Sault Saint Marie, in the upper peninsula of Michigan, LSSU is the first regionally-accredited institution to offer Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees in cannabis. Academic innovation is not new territory for LSSU, however, as they were the first in the country to establish one of only three accredited Fire Sciences degree programs in the U.S. Further, LSSU has been fully accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association since 1968 and, as such, provides its students with financial aid and transfer credit eligibility. LSSU’s current cannabis-focused degree programs include “Cannabis Business,” “Cannabis Chemistry,” and “Cannabis Science.” Consistently bringing the world what they need, LSSU is focused on turning out the next generation of cannabis employees, but they cannot do it alone.

Enter ExtractionTek Solutions (ETS). Established in 2011, ETS is a Colorado-based company providing light hydrocarbon extraction (LHE) equipment to the cannabis industry. ETS was at the forefront of cannabis legalization and was instrumental in providing safe and efficient equipment solutions to the ever-growing hydrocarbon extraction market. They bridged the gap from the basement style “open blasting” technique into the first third-party-engineer, peer-reviewed, closed-loop extraction platform. The “open-blasting” extraction technique included a cylindrical vessel filled with raw plant material (RPM). The vessel contained a small hole at the top to introduce the liquid hydrocarbons to the RPM and a filter was affixed to the large opening on the bottom, to separate the solvent mixture from the RPM. The hydrocarbons passed over the RPM and dissolved the compounds into a solution. The solution was collected in an open collection vessel. Heat was then added to the solution to convert the hydrocarbons into vapors, leaving behind the extracted plant compounds. In this process, the solvent was then purged into the atmosphere, and this sometimes had rather explosive results.

In light of its associated safety issues, “open blasting” was quickly outlawed nationally, particularly as injuries mounted. ETS’s closed-loop extraction system was able to take the open blasting process, encapsulate it in American 316 steel, and make it safe. By keeping the system under vacuum and using the physical characteristics of the solvents, it is now possible to extract the compounds out of the RPM and recycle the solvent for multiple uses. While similar to “open blasting,” in that a vessel is packed with plant material, the closed-loop extraction vessel is capped on either end, and a series of valves and hoses control the flow of the hydrocarbons through the system. The hydrocarbons are contained in an operating tank and will begin and end in this same spot. Just like “open blasting,” the solvent contacts the RPM and dissolves the compounds into solution. The system then passes the solution through a filter and into a closed collection vessel. The collection vessel is jacketed and can have hot water applied to the external jacket. Once the solution is heated, the liquid hydrocarbons convert to vapors. The vapor is distilled out of the collection vessel and recondensed back into a liquid that is returned to the starting solvent tank. This completes the “loop,” and the vessels were always “closed,” hence the name closed-loop extraction system. When operated correctly, this is the safest way to extract with these solvents. 

The conversion of liquid hydrocarbons into vapors creates significant pressure within these vessels. This can be a dangerous process if using inferior components; hence the essential need for third-party engineering reports. ETS has been instrumental for operators, as well as regulators, often providing consulting services and guidance to new emerging markets all around the world. Constant education, improvements, and innovation keep ETS at the forefront of the industry as thought leaders and visionaries.

LSSU formed a partnership with ETS to ensure that the university laboratory is equipped with proper, safe, industry-leading equipment. The team also partnered with such equipment-leaders as Huber International, Pinnacle Stainless, Cascade Sciences, Lab Society, Across International, and Summit Research. These partnerships will provide LSSU students with hands-on experience and the highest level of knowledge from the industry leaders in their respective areas. Each manufacturer is providing literature and is facilitating in-class discussions for the students. The students will be trained and will graduate from the program with original equipment manufacturer (OEM) certifications on the equipment. Beyond equipment, ETS will provide valuable industry knowledge and insights by serving on LSSU’s Cannabis Sciences Board of Directors. Their subject matter expertise and industry relationships will help tremendously to steer the program in productive directions and advance the curriculum at pace with the industry.

LSSU’s equipment manufacturer partnerships will prove fruitful for other aspects of the program as well. As students are required to complete internships, real world experiences, within controlled environments, will help them experience the realistic applications of their education and increase their later workplace successes. As this equipment is ubiquitous throughout the nation’s cannabis laboratories, individuals trained in its use are in high demand. The university will be able to connect students with the actual decision makers in these companies and help provide proper job placement for the students. Employers are looking for qualified employees, and up to this point that has been a struggle. The next generation of cannabis professionals will have degrees, will be well educated, and will be supported by such forward-thinking schools as LSSU.

LSSU’s first semester is finished and both the extraction and compliance laboratories are active. By filling an application for registration under the Controlled Substances Act, to be an analytical laboratory, LSSU has opened even another avenue to provide research for an industry desperately in need of it. Through another strategic partnership with Agilent Technologies, LSSU students will get training and be able to provide analytical analysis. Agilent has a long history of taking an active role in supporting higher education and research all around the world.

Equipment such as high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry (LC–MS) systems will provide potency analysis for cannabinoid and terpene concentrations. Gas chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry (GC–MS/MS) systems and GC-flame ionization detectors with head space samplers (GC-FID/ECD) are also available for contaminant testing of pesticides, heavy metals, and biocontaminants. LSSU even has an ultrahigh-performance liquid chromatography with time-of-flight mass spectrometry (UHPLC-TOF-MS) system, which could be helpful in identifying unknown cannabinoids. Currently, there are standards available for roughly 20 cannabinoids, leaving more than 100 that test as “unknowns.” The majority of research done up to this point is not considered valid because it did not originate from a recognized authority or facility or was done on inferior equipment. LSSU can now provide that research opportunity.

Typically, when it comes to cannabis laboratory activities, there are two worlds: analytical compliance testing and extraction for manufacturing. The Cannabis Chemistry degree will have a focus on the analytical route and will look to provide trained workers for compliance laboratories. While still performing extractions, they are mostly on a small scale and they are able to use solvents that would not typically be used in a manufacturing facility. They work in small product increments and will be looking to provide analytics on manufactured products as well as the RPM that growers need tested.

The Cannabis Sciences degree will focus more on extraction for manufacturing. This degree will be targeted towards students looking to work in extraction laboratories. Such extractions are performed on a much larger scale and involve larger product quantities. Because these products have the potential to reach the public, food-handling and safety are integrated into the program. The two will have significant crossover, as there are many similarities, but each will ultimately produce distinct types of employees.

The program is growing and developing daily, thanks in part to a massive outpouring of industry support-this not only includes equipment manufacturers, law firms, and engineering firms, but also licensed industry patrons. It is with such industry support that this novel endeavor can grow into something that is looked upon by the rest of the world as a legitimate industry and degree path. An actual degree with the word cannabis in it is something that was once a pipe dream, but it is now a reality!

References:

  1. B. Barcott, Leafly.com, March 4, 2019, https://www.leafly.com/news/industry/legal-cannabis-jobs-report-2019 (accessed February 7, 2020).